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THE SITUATION ROOM

Clinton, Trump Set to Debate. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired September 26, 2016 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[18:00:16]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: countdown to a history- making debate, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump set to face each other on the same debate stage for the first time just three hours from now.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Head to head, neck and neck. The latest national polling shows the race is about as close as it is can get. The question is, will tonight change that?

I'm Anderson Cooper.

BLITZER: And I'm Wolf Blitzer. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Thanks very much for joining us.

Donald Trump, he has now arrived here at Hofstra University, just a little while ago, for one of the most highly anticipated nights in the history of American politics.

The estimates of how many Americans will watch the first presidential debate of this election season rivals Super Bowl numbers. And the kickoff is now just three hours away. We're live here at Hofstra University, where the candidates, they will take the stage at 9:00 p.m. Eastern, right here on CNN, for 90 minutes of debate, with no commercial breaks.

Hillary Clinton, no stranger to the debate stage. She's been doing mock debates, trying to anticipate anything Donald Trump might throw at her.

Our senior Washington correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, is joining us now with more.

Jeff, less than three hours now to the big event. So, how did Secretary Clinton spend her day?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Secretary Clinton has actually been here on Long Island for a few hours, about 10 miles or so from here, at a hotel and resort, just putting finishing touches on her preparations, also just relaxing a little bit and really taking in the big moment of this campaign.

She knows that this is a different moment for her. We like to think that she's been through everything before since she's run for president before. But she's never been in a general election debate before. She's never debated Donald Trump before, so this is entirely different than any of her 38 previous debates, Wolf.

So they have been preparing for that. She has been doing mock debate sessions, going through things Donald Trump may throw at her. They're preparing more for a disciplined, presidential Donald Trump, not necessarily a freewheeling, unscripted Donald Trump.

So, throughout the day, she's been going over some moments that she could have in this debate with Donald Trump. She knows that people will not remember her for her policy, but they may remember her for the moments that she makes with Donald Trump, and certainly she will be trying to use some of his own words against him, as she's been doing in her ads throughout the campaign, Wolf.

That is one of the things she's been studying up on for all these weeks. Really what Donald Trump has been saying, she's been trying to memorize those, and if given the opportunity, she will use his own words against him, or at least try to.

BLITZER: Jeff, this is obviously a very big moment for the campaign. So what would a debate -- quote -- "win" look like to them?

ZELENY: Well, talking to some of her advisers, a win for the Clinton campaign would be that she's able to get her positive message across.

For months, they have been trying to say that Donald Trump is not qualified to serve as president. Well, tonight, that is not enough for her. She needs to win over some of those voters she's struggled to do. And she's looking at some individual voters, just kind of the hypothetical voter out there.

And one that a few advisers mentioned is a suburban woman in the suburbs of Philadelphia, someone who voted for Mitt Romney, not sure about Donald Trump, but not sold on Hillary Clinton, somebody who doesn't like Hillary Clinton. She has that type of voter in mind. So a win for Hillary Clinton tonight, Wolf, would be winning over a Republican or a moderate, someone who is not exactly in love with Hillary Clinton, but is not sold on Donald Trump and would think Donald Trump is too big of a risk.

So that would be a win tonight for Hillary Clinton -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jeff Zeleny reporting for us, thank you.

By all accounts, Donald Trump has done less preparing for tonight's debate, although he has watched videos of Hillary Clinton.

Sara Murray has been following the Trump camp for us. She's joining us now.

Sara, how did Mr. Trump spend his day? Does he feel -- the campaign, does it feel that he's ready for tonight?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, in spite of all this downplaying of expectations, a game that both candidates played going into the debate, Donald Trump has been doing his own version of prep and he fit in another session earlier today at Trump Tower.

It's very clear his aides want him to be prepared. They don't want him to be overly prepared. They don't want him to be overly rehearsed. Rudy Giuliani came out of Trump Tower yesterday and said there's no role playing for that reason. They want it to be more of a natural setting.

And part of that is just to try to stay true to the tone that helped Donald Trump defeat so many Republicans who ran against him and that really has helped him speak to such a wide section of the United States, these working-class white voters that Republicans like Mitt Romney struggled to get to turn out. Donald Trump is really trying to speak to them.

[18:05:05]

And so they don't want him to show up and be an entirely different person, seem like a politician who has just practiced all of these lines and rehearsed everything. They still want him to have that conversational tone.

But, of course, they want him to be able to come on stage and to speak in an informed manner about the issues that are going to come up. He's not done a one-on-one debate before and his campaign is aware that this is going to go deeper than we saw in the primary debates, Wolf.

BLITZER: I'm sure it is. And, as you know, Mr. Trump has invited some notable guests tonight. Sara, who are they?

MURRAY: Well, that's right. He has a number of notable guests.

Of course, his family is going to be here, as well as his children's spouses and his wife, Melania, is going to be here, as you would expect. He also has -- coach Bobby Knight is going to be joining him in debate hall. That's someone who has been spending quite a bit of time at Trump Tower recently.

But he's also going to have a Gold Star mother, Karen Vaughn, who is going to be one of his guests, as well as a Benghazi survivor, Mark Geist. So that gives you a little bit of a sense of how they want to play up, one, veteran support for Trump, but also, two, an idea of how he's going to try to bore into Hillary Clinton's failures from the perception of the Trump campaign, potentially going into Benghazi, potentially going into her e-mails, and how that has put national security at risk.

I think that these guests sort of give you a little bit of a clue to what we might hear from Donald Trump tonight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, good point. Sara, thank you, Sara Murray reporting for us.

So, if the primary debates were any indication, there's really no telling what could happen on the stage tonight, but it won't be a free-for-all. There are number of rules in place, specific rules. Joining us now with that, our senior media and politics reporter Dylan Byers.

Dylan, you have some new information about the rules for tonight's debate. What are you learning?

DYLAN BYERS, CNN SENIOR MEDIA AND POLITICS REPORTER: So, here's what we know.

The lights will come up. The candidate will come on stage. The first question of the night will go to Hillary Clinton. That is the result of a coin toss. From there, what you have are six 15-minute segments.

These 15-minute segments will proceed as follows. The first candidate will get two minutes to respond to a question. The other candidate will get two minutes to respond to the same question, and then there will be about 10 minutes of open debate.

Now, this is a soft 10 minutes. If for any reason, they go under, the moderator, Lester Holt of "NBC Nightly News," might ask another follow-up question. But it's very likely, given how much these candidates have prepared, given how ready they are for this debate, that you could only have six questions posed from the moderator.

The rest of it will really be up to the candidates.

BLITZER: In the previous presidential debates, there has been a so- called signed agreement over all the logistics, even the role of the moderators. Is there one in place for tonight?

BYERS: No, there's not. What there is, there is a verbal agreement from the campaigns and the candidates to adhere to the general format and rules that I have laid out.

But in past cycles, there has been what's been known as a memorandum of understanding. These often run several pages, and they're agreements between the two campaigns on logistical issues, stage issues, lightings, podiums, things of that nature, as well as more general expectations about how the debate will proceed, about the role of the moderator in that debate, which is always a big issue in these presidential debates.

That didn't exist that time, or that didn't seem to be a problem for either of the campaigns, nor for the Commission on Presidential Debates.

BLITZER: Interesting stuff.

All right, Dylan, thank you very much -- Anderson, over to you.

COOPER: Yes, wolf, thanks.

We're told Donald Trump has finished his walk-through of the debate stage this evening. So we are approaching debate time, a couple hours away.

Of course, the backdrop of all this, John King, is this tightening of the race.

So, let's take a look. We have the traveling magic wall here at Hofstra University, the debate site. Let's take a look at national polls first.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's fascinating. What a difference a month or six weeks make.

Let's look at this polling, Anderson. This is an averaging, our poll of polls. So many new polls come out, we take them out and we average them. It's the best way to look at it. Never trust just one poll. Our new average, Hillary Clinton up two points, 44-42 percent. You see the third-party candidate pulling 10 percent.

But, remember, right after the Democratic Convention, both conventions were over, a lot of Democrats said, hey, the race were over. Hillary Clinton was up 10 points just six, seven weeks ago, 45-35 then. Notice, her number is about stable. Trump has come up from 35 percent. The third-party candidates have lot a little to Donald Trump.

Most of this is Trump consolidating among Republicans, but this is now a very competitive race where just a few weeks ago we were thinking over.

COOPER: Yes.

Let's take a look at some of the battleground polls.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: That is what gets fascinating.

Look at this map. We use this all the time because it's the last race, the blue won by Obama against Governor Romney. Right? Let's start in Pennsylvania. Republicans have not won this state for president since 1988.

Donald Trump is in a one-point race, a dead heat in Pennsylvania, with Hillary Clinton, 45-44, the-third party candidates getting a combined nine.

Now, Colorado, traditionally has been more competitive, but President Obama carried it pretty handily in 2008 and again in 2012. Look, Trump ahead in our poll. This is a statistical tie, 42-21 percent.

[18:10:00]

What does that do, Anderson, that it brings these blue Obama states into play? Let's look at it this way. In recent days now, a dead heat in Pennsylvania, Trump ahead a little bit or in a dead heat in Ohio, ahead a little bit or a tie in North Carolina, ahead or in a tie in Florida, now in a dead heat in Colorado and he's leading in Nevada.

What do you notice about all those states? All but North Carolina blue, carried by President Obama. What does it do to the electoral map? A month ago, we were saying Donald Trump had such a narrow route.

COOPER: Right. I remember. We talked about this it seemed like every time.

KING: Like he's drawing to an inside straight. It was so difficult.

Now he's in much more competitive position than Governor Romney was. Reasonable to say Trump could win Florida. Reasonable to say he holds North Carolina. Reasonable to say could win Ohio. A lot depends on tonight. The race could change coming into tonight, but if you look at that, where does that get him there?

If he holds his lead in Nevada, 272-264, voila, flip Colorado into the Trump column, he's the president of the United States. Even if he can't flip Colorado, I have stayed out there. He's competitive here. He's reasonably competitive here. He's competitive here. Small competitive here. Trump now has many options, whereas six weeks ago he has one or two.

COOPER: How did all this change? What are the factors driving this tightening?

KING: The biggest factor is, Republicans have come home. Donald Trump, after the two conventions, was getting high 70, maybe 80 percent of Republican voters. And 90 percent-plus of Republicans now say we're going to vote for our nominee, Donald Trump.

COOPER: I wonder how much of that is just sort of getting closer to the actual race and a decision between these two candidates and how much is kind of the new management, Kellyanne Conway and others?

KING: It's an interesting question.

But there's no question Republican voters have decided to come home. Now, on the day of their first debate four years ago, Barack Obama was up three points over Mitt Romney, the very same national lead Hillary Clinton has today.

But here's the problem. Not only have Republicans come home. Look at these numbers. This is just Colorado. But look at voters under the age of 45.

COOPER: Wow.

KING: Key voters in the Obama coalition. Gary Johnson is getting 24 percent, Jill Stein 6 percent. Look at the bleed. These would be -- most of them would be Democratic voters.

Look at the bleed in Colorado, whereas, for older voters, more Republican voters, very little bleed. Trump keeps his lead there. This is not just happening in Colorado. It's happening in other states as well.

COOPER: So this answers the question which we had been asking early on about Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, is, who do they take away votes from? It seems like they're taking away votes from Hillary Clinton. KING: A lot of millennials are going there. That's the biggest

problem for Hillary Clinton. Some independents are going there.

And also remember never Trump Republicans, Republicans who after the Democratic Convention said, you know what, that wasn't a bad performance, maybe I will hold my nose and vote for Hillary Clinton. They're finding in Colorado and in other states, Anderson, a safe place with Gary Johnson. They don't want to vote for her.

She has got a number of dynamics against her. Now, Trump has problems too. Let's not get this wrong. Structurally, Hillary Clinton still in great shape. But this race is so much tighter, so much different, the consequences tonight so much more interesting than they were just a few weeks ago.

COOPER: Yes. it's great to have this information as the backdrop as we watch the debate tonight.

We are going to take a short break. More of our coverage ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:17:13]

BLITZER: One of the people who will be watching the debate from inside the debate hall tonight is someone who spent 18 months with Donald Trump, got to know him very well, and is very critical of him.

Tony Schwartz was the co-author of Trump's book "The Art of the Deal." He told "The New Yorker" magazine that he feels a deep sense of remorse that he contributed to presenting Trump in a way that made him more appealing than he is, and if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes, it could lead, he believes, to the end of civilization.

Tony Schwartz is joining us right now.

Tony, thanks very much for joining us.

TONY SCHWARTZ, CO-AUTHOR, "THE ART OF THE DEAL": Thanks for having me, Wolf.

BLITZER: You recently said that the best way to defeat Donald Trump in a debate is to consistently and calmly use his own words against him. What do you mean?

SCHWARTZ: Well, I think what you want to do is, you want to get him -- you want to take what he's already said that's indefensible and then you want to put it back in his face in a relentless way, because what you want to do is, you want to move him from a place of thinking to a place -- to the lizard part of the brain, where he will revert to form and what he will be is arrogant and demeaning and dishonest.

Those are the things he does when he is in that core place of his.

BLITZER: Because you say it would be wise for Secretary Clinton tonight to try to rile him up. That's been tried before in the Republican primary debates. Did not necessarily work that great for the challengers to Donald Trump. So how does Hillary Clinton do it better?

SCHWARTZ: Stay with the facts. Simply repeat the facts.

This is an hour-and-a-half. He had a minute here, a minute there. He's a genius when he has 20 seconds. What he can't do is pay attention for a sustained period of time. He can't get past the first sentence or second sentence of what he knows, because he doesn't know any more.

And if she stays with that, I guarantee you that in one way or another, he's going to decompensate. And I don't know mean by that he's going to start to flop sweat on the stage. What I mean is, he's going to be reactive. He's going to double down on a lie. He's going to do something that, by tomorrow morning, the world will be talking about.

BLITZER: I know the Clinton campaign asked you for some advice about Donald Trump's personality, his temperament. What can you share with us about that?

SCHWARTZ: Well, you know, I have been talking about his temperament. I think what you have is, you have a Donald Trump that I'm sure his campaign tonight is trying to get him to play a role, and that role is president.

The question is whether he can play that role for 90 consecutive minutes. If he doesn't, he will play the real Donald Trump, the authentic Donald Trump, which is not an attractive human being, and especially not attractive to those people who sit in the middle trying to decide whether they can accept this man.

[18:20:10]

So, whether he manages somehow to be the actor Donald Trump or he reverts to who he actually is, either way, he's wholly, wholly unqualified to be president of the United States.

BLITZER: Tony Schwartz, thanks so much for joining us.

SCHWARTZ: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Anderson, back to you.

COOPER: Yes, thanks, Wolf.

One of the big questions, of course, looming over tonight is whether Donald Trump will be civil or if he will fall back on maybe some primary debate strategies that worked so well. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: First of all, Rand Paul shouldn't even be on this stage. This guy is a choke artist and this guy is a liar. Don't worry about it, little Marco.

I have given my answer, lying Ted.

I'm relaxed. You're the nasty case.

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: Am I talking or are you talking, Jeb?

JEB BUSH (R), FORMER FLORIDA GOVERNOR: I'm talking right now. I'm talking.

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: You can go back. You're not talking. You interrupted me.

BUSH: September 30, you said...

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: Are you going to apologize, Jeb? No. Am I allowed to finish?

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: More energy tonight, I like that.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: His visceral response to attack people on their appearance, short, tall, fat, ugly, my goodness, that happened in junior high.

TRUMP: I never attacked him on his look. And, believe me, there's plenty of subject matter right there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Wow. I had forgotten how amazing those debates actually were.

I got to say, looking at that, I totally -- feels like a long, long time ago.

Back now with the panel.

This is obviously such a different debate, you know, the kind of tenor of it. Audiences are encouraged. Usually, they're told by the moderators at these debates, do not say anything, do not applaud, do not respond. But we don't know how it's going to be tonight.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: We don't. The interesting thing for me about Donald Trump is that he gets a lot of his energy from the audience. And he reacts to the audience.

So, some of those things were reactive in a way, because he got applause when he called people names. Tonight, the audience is going to be quiet. COOPER: Supposedly. Who knows?

BORGER: They're being told to be quiet. So it may be a little more polite, a little more presidential.

It will be a whole different theme. However, I don't think we -- it's also important. This is one of the most -- I don't know if any of you can remember, but it's one of the most consequential debates in modern American political history.

And I think that the stakes for these candidates could not be higher. Donald Trump has to prove that he can be a president, and Hillary Clinton has to tell people, you know what? I deserve to be your president, and I should be.

COOPER: John, you have covered a lot of these -- a lot of debates. Can you remember a debate that is potentially as consequential as this one?

KING: No, given the unpredictability of this race and the uniqueness of the candidates, a woman making history, Donald Trump being not a politician. The first Bush-Gore debate in what was a very, very close election, Al Gore sighs, the rolling of the eyes, his demeanor.

Al Gore came into debate ahead, and he sort of lost control of the race right there. The first three-way debate in '92, where you had Bill Clinton, Ross Perot and George H.W. Bush, President Bush needed that very much to get his momentum back. Ross Perot actually wound up, came out with a boost in the first debate because he looked plausible.

A lot of people thought he was a little erratic, was he up to being president? And he looked plausible, at least for one night. He tailed after that, but it still had an impact on the race.

A lot of people compare this to Reagan-Carter 1980. That one is before my time. I will say, though, a lot of the professionals I talk to who remember those days say the American public was rooting for Ronald Reagan to pass that test. They wanted change. They wanted him to convince them, I'm not going to start a war, I'm ready to be president.

They say there's much more skepticism about Trump when they try to make that comparison, that people are more locked in that Trump doesn't have the temperament.

But if you wanted to go back and look for a change candidate coming in who had scared some voters away and had a big opportunity in the first debate, I think that's the best parallel you could find.

COOPER: Which gets the question, David, of expectations, and are they unfairly low for Donald Trump, unfairly for the Clinton campaign? Where do you see this?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Soon, they will matter little, because what will matter is what is said on the stage. I do think they're clearly lower for Donald Trump than they are

Hillary Clinton. We have that, asking the American people in polls, who do you expect to win, she certainly is expected to win the debate.

And John is saying, a nonpolitician obviously will lower the bar for him as well. But I think we're nearing the time of the expectations game sort of having very little impact now, because what's going to matter is what is on the stage

And don't overlook what John said about the sighs and the eye rolls and all of that, because, yes, substance is going to be critical. But this stuff about a sigh or an eye roll, this is the stuff that, A, we will talk about in the news coverage, no doubt. Voter impressions will happen.

But then it's the stuff that "SNL" will pick up on or other pop culture moments, which solidify in pop culture a moment like that or a look like that. And that could define the whole thing.

(CROSSTALK)

[18:25:05]

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, because even if you look back at that Al Gore debate, after it was over, people he won.

And then you had Republicans swoop in after that debate, splice an ad of him sighing, sighing, sighing, sighing. And then you had Katie Couric later saying, oh, is it presidential when you sigh so much in a debate? So that sort of a post-debate spin from these different sides also going to be very important.

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: How about saying lockbox, putting Social Security in a lockbox seven times? He was prepped on that to say it once, and he said it seven times. Didn't work out so well.

COOPER: Well, it's the same thing. You think back to Marco Rubio during the primary debates where he had sort of some talking points that he hit.

And Donald Trump, for a guy who hadn't been in debates before, sort of cut through a lot of it and just sort of pointed out, oh, you're doing it again.

Or I think it was Christie did it.

(CROSSTALK)

ANDY DEAN, SYNDICATED RADIO HOST: Well, I think that's a perfect moment of overpreparation, that Rubio had this in his head, and he wanted to get it out, but at what cost?

He may have won the battle, but he lost the war of the people watching on television. And I think a couple of important production notes, because I'm with Trump Productions -- I used to run the company -- is that both microphones will be open for the full 90 minutes, which, unlike the previous debates, when you have 16 people or 10 people, that's not the case, because that would lead to complete chaos.

Another thing is, CNN is going to be doing a two-shot, as are most networks. So you're going to have reaction shots during the entire two minutes that Hillary Clinton is speaking. That to me leads to either a great opportunity for Trump to kind of say no while she's talking, or it could lead to a negative if he does it too much. So, he has to be restrained, but it's very powerful, nonverbal.

COOPER: Because I do think -- I think back to a lot of his facial gestures during the primary debates.

And I think Hillary Clinton has put some of them in an ad now. Some of them are very funny. He was sort of rolling -- he was rolling his eyes. He was sort of mugging to the cameras a little bit.

And you could argue it didn't look presidential. You could also argue it made him look personable and was funny and people liked him. It was authentic.

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Yes. NO, I think that -- and I also think that he wants to -- I think it's right that he definitely feeds off of the crowd, but he's also just very aware of being a showman and giving a show.

So I think he is going to find that balance between trying to be presidential, but also not being boring, because he doesn't want to be boring. And he knows that people want to have excitement and have an exciting debate.

So, I also think they have sort of set it up with Hillary that sort of this Marco Rubio thing, that she's overprepared, Kellyanne Conway saying she's stuffing her head with binders and microchips, like she's a robot. So if she's too prepared, they will say, oh, there she goes again with her talking points and her memorized lines.

(CROSSTALK)

BAKARI SELLERS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: There are two points that we completely overlooked. And it can't be said enough.

Hillary Clinton has been on a stage like this before, maybe not as large, but she's actually been in a debate where you had the two-shot where her microphone is open, where she's actually debating somebody of some substance, of some caliber.

She debated Barack Obama in a one-on-one situation. She debated Bernie Sanders, who became a much better debater as the process went along. So, you can't underestimate the fact that she's been there before.

But something we haven't talked about is that Donald Trump actually has to show up tonight with some substance, with some policy. That's something that he's not done on the campaign trail.

True, he's given a speech with three points for a period of time, but he's going to have two minutes to answer a question. That's longer than a 40-second chip. And he is going to have to be able to talk about the fact that he wants to replace Obamacare, but replace it with what? Give us the answers.

He has a secret plan to defeat ISIS. What is that plan?

COOPER: But, Chairman Rogers, does he have to do that? I think back to some of Ronald Reagan's debates. There was a first debate -- and, again, I wasn't covering it at the time, but just from what I remember, is that he was kind of overloaded with a lot of information.

And I think it was, somebody told me, Roger Ailes actually said to him in the second debate, look, you're the big picture guy. Just give us your vision, and that you don't need to get into all those details.

MIKE ROGERS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I really don't think he does have to get into the details.

Remember this. A third of the voters have said these debates are important to them. And look at the number of people is -- it's outrageous -- that are going to watch these debates. These are new people to the debate process. These are not political wonks.

I think if you start walking down 10 points of how you're going to defeat ISIS and the 14 points to replace Obamacare, you have lost it. And it fits the narrative I think that Hillary Clinton has to get rid of, which is, I have been around, I can do this, I know the mechanics. It's really a pain in the rear for me to be here today, but I will go through the process.

(CROSSTALK)

SELLERS: But you also have to know Russia invaded Georgia. Like, you have to know basic facts. And Donald Trump has swung and missed on the basic facts.

CHALIAN: People do question whether he has the knowledge.

SELLERS: And that's all I'm saying.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: He's the challenger. He's the challenger and he's the outsider, change candidate.

So the specificity bar is a little different. But he has to pass a credibility -- he has to cross a credibility threshold in this election.

And one other quick point I would make is, the audience is very, very different from the Republican primary debates. Republican primaries are majority male electorate. The general electorate that picks a president of the United States is majority women, especially in the swing states, and much more suburban, where Republican primaries tend to be more exurban and rural.

This is a very different target audience for Donald Trump. He's never competed on this terrain. It's a big test.

[18:30:10] BORGER: And there's a gender dynamic here, as well. I mean, you can call her Crooked Hillary, but what do you say to her face? And how he treats Hillary Clinton is going to be important here.

And the Clinton adviser I spoke with earlier today said, "We don't expect him to go after her personally. We think he wouldn't be silly enough to do that," that he is going to go after her in another way. "So we have prepped," as this person said to me, "for him being generous to her," because they want to make it more difficult for her to attack him, and I think she still will find a way to get under his skin anyway.

COOPER: We're going to take a break. We're going to check in with both campaigns. We're going to hear from spokespeople, see how their candidates are spending these last few hours before the debate here on CNN. Also, what tactics they may ready to use tonight to score a win. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:35:50] BLITZER: Welcome back. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. We're now here in the debate hall, about 2 1/2 hours to go until history is made. The first presidential debate between these two candidates gets under way. You'll see it right here on CNN. It's a matchup never seen before.

In nearly every respect, the candidates could not be more different. At this moment, though, they are both no doubt feeling the same pressure.

Joining us now is Jack Kingston. He's a Trump campaign senior adviser, former congressman from Georgia.

Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

JACK KINGSTON, TRUMP CAMPAIGN SENIOR ADVISOR: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: I understand Donald Trump was doing debate prep this morning. What, if anything, can you tell us about that? Specifically, what is he focusing on in these final hours before this debate?

KINGSTON: Well, you know, you've got to focus on almost everything. You need to know the facts. You need to know your position. You need to be able to say it all in a 90-second time period. And so his advisers have peppered him with questions and suggested responses. There's a little bit of wordsmithing going on.

But as you know, one of the great things about Donald Trump, he's a wide open guy. He is a little bit unpredictable; he's very spontaneous. He knows what he wants to say, and he'll often just come out and say it. He's the kind of exciting candidate that people want to hear what he's going to say next. And I think that's one reason you have 100 million people watching tonight.

BLITZER: Yes, he arrived here at Hofstra University a little while ago, did a little tour of the stage behind me. What's his main strategy, Congressman, going into tonight? Will he focus more on attacking Secretary Clinton, or will he focus more on explaining his own policies?

KINGSTON: I think he's going to be explaining his own policies more. His vision for the economy, his vision for bringing jobs out, for lessening the regulatory burden on mom-and-pop businesses. He's going to talk about national security, peace through strength, rebuilding our armed forces, and America's image abroad, if you will.

I think you're going to inevitably have some of those personal type exchanges, but you're also going to talk about some of the scandals. And those are going to come up because the moderators are going to ask about it, and then a good heated debate is going to lead in that direction.

But I really believe what he wants to do is talk to those middle-class families who have seen their household income fall from $57,000 to $53,000. And he's going to say, "This is my vision for you. I'm going to take on Washington, D.C. I'm going to be an outsider. I'm going to shake the place up. I'm going to be your champion." And I think if he can convince people of that, then a lot of these swing voters are going to come his way, as they have been doing for the last month.

BLITZER: As you know, Congressman, a lot of focus on which Donald Trump shows up tonight. Will it be a more reserved Donald Trump or an off-the-cuff Donald Trump that we saw in those Republican primary debates, which obviously helped get him the nomination. Which Trump are we going to see tonight?

KINGSTON: Well, Wolf, as you know, you can't take the Donald out of the Donald, and you don't really want to. Because that's what makes him exciting. He has to be himself. He doesn't want to be over- scripted.

Yet at the same time, I think you are going to see the more reserved side of him, the more presidential side of him, the businessman who has built an empire, who has hired thousands of people and made a lot of people wealthy along the way, and done a lot of good things in cities around America and around the world. And I think you're going to see that side of him more than anything else.

But as you know, if you push Donald Trump, he's going to push you back. It's a little bit trickier tonight on the world stage, but I think you're still going to see a very strong Donald Trump, but somewhat reserved.

BLITZER: As you know, the Clinton campaign has repeatedly said there's a lower bar for Donald Trump. The Clinton campaign manager, Robby Mook, said that he's concerned Trump will be graded on a curve. So what's your response to that?

KINGSTON: Well, I think a little -- some of that is positioning and maybe a tad whining.

Hillary Clinton, as you know, is a very accomplished debater. She has been running for president since 2007. Before that, she was a U.S. senator. Before that, she was coaching Bill Clinton on running for president and running for governor. So she has lived and breathed policy and debates and the public life. So she's very accomplished, and she's probably held to a very high standard because of that.

[18:40:14] But the reality is, the styles are so different. She's scripted; Donald Trump is not. He's coming in it tonight with not the wind at his back, but the polling lately has just been great. All these states, for example Colorado. Hillary Clinton all but declared victory in a month ago, and now it's a tight race. Some of the polls, we're leading. Some of them, we're not. But it's a very close race in Colorado. But not just there, but everywhere else, all these other swing states.

BLITZER: All right. Congressman Kingston, thanks very much for joining us.

KINGSTON: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Up next, I'll speak with Hillary Clinton's chief strategist about tonight's debate. We're going to find out how she has prepared for what is clearly going to be an epic showdown.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:45:40] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It's a pretty fair bet that Hillary Clinton's e-mails will come up during the course of tonight's first presidential debate. Her decision to use a personal email server when she was secretary of state has dogged her throughout the campaign, despite her attempts to try to put it to rest.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: Well, I've taken responsibility for it. I did say it was a mistake. What I did was allowed by the State Department but it wasn't the best choice.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Isn't a little bit hard for you to call this just a partisan issue. There's an FBI investigation and President Obama himself just two days ago said this is a legitimate issue.

CLINTON: Well, I never said it wasn't legitimate. I said that I have answered all the questions and I will certainly be doing so again before this committee.

You know, before it was e-mails, it was Benghazi and the Republicans were stirring up so much controversy about that. And I testified for 11 hours, answered their questions. They basically said, yep, didn't get her. We tried. That was all a political ploy. It wasn't the best choice. It made a mistake. It was not prohibited.

It was not in any way disallowed.

We've got this absurd situation of retroactive classifications. Honest to goodness. This is -- this is beggars the imagination. So I have absolutely no concerns about it, but we've got to get to the bottom of what's really going on here.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

BLITZER: Donald Trump has been certainly slamming Hillary Clinton over her e-mails, now for more than a year. No reason to think that that -- he will stop tonight.

Joining us now is Joel Benenson. He's a Democratic pollster, chief strategist for the Hillary Clinton campaign.

Joel, thanks very much for joining us.

JOEL BENENSON, CHIEF STRATEGIST FOR THE CLINTON CAMPAIGN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: I understand Secretary Clinton was still doing debate prep today. What has she been focusing on, in these the final hours before this debate?

BENENSON: I think when you get to debate day, you're just reviewing, refining, you know, she's been campaigning for more than a year. The message she's been taking to the American people is very familiar to her. She's going to drive that home tonight, that she's the only candidate here that will build an economy that will work for anyone, not those at the top.

She's going to be the only person on that stage who has what it takes to be the commander in chief, who can work with our allies, stand up to our adversaries and keep us safe, and I think really importantly, candidate who has the values to lift this country up, lift each other up, not tear each other down so that can work together, to be stronger together and get the things done we need to for working families in America.

BLITZER: What's been the main focus of her debate prep process? What is her key argument going to be tonight?

BENENSON: Well, I think I just mentioned it, Wolf. I think I just walked through the core message and the core contrast here. I mean, look, the truth is that an economy that works for everyone is what the American people want. They know the gains have been going largely to the top 1 percent.

Donald Trump doesn't just double down on it, he triples down on it. He wants to keep giving more tax breaks to the wealthy, to giant corporations that independent economists, as well as Republican economists, those who served under Republican presidents, say his plan would drive our debt up massively and crash our economy all over again. The American people don't want to go back to that. They have worked

too hard to get ahead. They're going to want a president who will invest in education so their kids get the future they want, lighten the load of college costs and college debt so people can get to college and have the good paying jobs of the future that she'll create going forward.

BLITZER: There's been a lot of talk about which Donald Trump is going to show up tonight, an unscripted Donald Trump or a more reserved Donald Trump. A Clinton campaign source told CNN, I'm quoting now, "We haven't spent a lot of time on the bad Trump. We're going to let that unfold." And that source said they've been prepping for him being, quote, "generous toward her."

But will Secretary Clinton be prepared for an off-the-cuff, feisty Donald Trump?

BENENSON: Look, I think frankly, Wolf, what we've seen over the course of this campaign is that there is only one Donald Trump. He fabricates and creates gross distortions. You know, in the last week, I don't know if you noticed this, but three separate news organizations followed him just over the span of a week and "The New York Times" I think said there were 31 whoppers in a span of seven days.

[18:50:03] So, I think now he's really propensity for a complete and total falsehoods becomes an issue in this. We expect the moderators to hold him to account for that, because it's really been very central to his campaign. In addition to that, I think he's going to be held account during this debate in a way he hasn't been directly before for the bigoted, racist, comments that have been made by him, including attacking an American judge born in Indiana for his Mexican heritage. A comment that even a Republican, the speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, said was the very definition of a racist mistake.

And I think, you know, he's going to have to be asked about that. He's going to have to answer for those things because he's been dividing Americans for his entire campaign. He's been tearing down everybody, attacking our military, saying we're a disaster and we're going to hold him to account for that and we expect Lester Holt will as well during the course of the debate.

BLITZER: So, very quickly, Joel, do you agree with Harry Reid who called him a racist on the Senate floor today?

BENENSON: You know, anybody who knows Harry Reid, he is a fierce competitor. He was a former boxer. He can speak for himself.

What I know, Wolf, is what I said, too, is that many people, Republicans and Democrats, have denounced the statements that Donald Trump has made, that are rooted in some bigotry like the statement about Judge Curiel in Indiana, an American-born judge, and we think that he will be asked about those by the moderator because they're central to how he's conducted himself throughout the campaign -- dividing Americans instead of lifting each other up, tearing us apart instead of bringing us together. That's what Hillary Clinton is going to talk about is how we're

stronger together as a country. That's how we'll build a better future for all working families in America.

BLITZER: Joel Benenson, thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, the biggest risk during the 90-minute face-off. Presidential debate coaches from both sides of the aisle talk about what Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump need to do tonight to come out on top.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:56:41] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back.

If you don't already have the popcorn, if you don't have cold cuts, or pretzels, or beer or wine, whatever it is, you've got to get some because tonight is going to be extraordinary. We want to take a look at kind of the different strategies that these candidates may have tonight.

Don Lemon is here with an inside look -- Don.

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: You were just listening to our conversation here, Anderson. I'm back with two former debate coaches.

You helped Bill Clinton and Al Gore. You're a Hillary Clinton super PAC. You're in charge of Hillary Clinton super PAC.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes.

LEMON: So, let's talk about this -- is it really rah, rah, rah when you're a debate coach for these guys? What is it like?

BEGALA: No, no. I mean, what you want to do is a little like boot camp, tear them down and build them up.

LEMON: And that's what's happening now.

BEGALA: Yes. Well, now is buildup time now. You can't put anything new their head at all. For me, that's the most magical moment. The prep is great, it's fun. It's about ideas, it's about issues. It's about cute lines, too.

But now these last hours, I used to sit with Clinton in the locker room, bouncing a basketball back and forth. We had this great speech coach, Michael Sheehan, who's also a spy novel aficionado as is Clinton, Michael, we're talking about spy novels. He says, oh, what do you think about this mystery? And you would never know. There was a debate coming on national television because you want to chill them out.

LEMON: I asked you during our last segment last hour about preparing for Donald Trump. How did you -- can you prepare, when you were preparing Marco Rubio?

LANHEE CHEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I mean, it's really hard. You just don't know what's going to come at you. In some ways, you have to prepare all the different possible angles, but then what you realize in doing that, you have to expect the unexpected.

Donald Trump is the kind that guy that's going to stand up there and he's going to make his statement. You don't know where it's going to go. Is it going to issues, is it going to go to the size of your hands? You just don't know where it's going. It's very, very difficult to sit there and have a conversation about it. You just have to get ready from a temperamental perspective.

You got to understand, how are you going to respond if he comes at you personally, if he comes at you with an issue attack? That's the most important.

LEMON: Why the difference, when someone like Donald Trump gets up and brags about his resume, it seems like that's being confident, but then Hillary Clinton has to watch out, because it's also like she's sort of meandering, being lawyerly when she talks about her resume and her accomplishments.

BEGALA: Well, I think there's a bit of a double standard, not only because Hillary is a woman, but in this race, because Trump is so entertaining. I mean, he has spent more time in front of the camera than any presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan before he ran. I know he's never held office.

But apparently, it's pretty good practice to learn how to deal with the lights and the cameras. I think that's a little unfair. I think Hillary is, I frankly think, better suited than the Republicans to deal with this because she has handled those committees.

LEMON: Yes.

BEGALA: Which are all little -- some are very reasonable, some are kind of loony.

LEMON: I want to make sure I get this in. I think this is important. You were telling me, your favorite part of this is just before they go out.

BEGALA: I got to walk out with Bill Clinton. Stand there and we had all this prep. This I the last thing I said to him. I hope they say this to Hillary. I hope they say it to Trump, too, for different reasons. I said, you have great prep, you're ready for this, but if something pops in your head on the stage, say it.

LEMON: Right.

BEGALA: You have the best instincts I've ever seen, sir, trust your instincts because --

CHEN: I remember right before that first debate in Denver in 2012 that Governor Romney did really well. I was so nervous I was shaking. He put his hand on me and said, "Don't be nervous, I got this."

LEMON: He did a great job. He won the first debate. CHEN: He won the first debate, absolutely.

BEGALA: You did a great job.

CHEN: Well, no, it was all him. It was all him.

LEMON: Thank you, gentlemen.

So, we've got our beer over here, Anderson, we got our hot dogs and some chicken wings and a bunch of stuff. We're ready for tonight.

COOPER: It's going to be an extraordinary night, historic night. Don, thanks very much. We'll be watching along with everybody else.